December 18, 2011

Main Street in Norfolk, 1917. (Library of Congress)
I was scrolling through microfilm a couple of years ago, looking for Virginian-Pilot stories about one of the biggest projects ever in Hampton Roads, the development of Norfolk Naval Station in 1917. And I found a curious piece. Filed it away. Thought there’d never be an excuse to use it.

But there is, the recent story about Norfolk and usually rival sister cities getting together to discuss ways of sharing services. If that sounds familiar, here’s the echo:

GREATER NORFOLK NEW CITY’S NAME. It was the headline in the Pilot on July 4, 1917, followed by a subhead: Common Council Adopts Preliminary Ordinance Looking To Consolidation

What a radical thought: Norfolk actually taking the initiative to reach across the Elizabeth, apparently confident its sister city would jump on the idea.

There was even a five-member “consolidation committee,” with W. H. Sargeant, acting as chair.

“I believe we are nearer consolidation than ever before,” said the confident Mr. Sargeant. “I have strong assurances from some of the leading men of Portsmouth that they will favor the union of the two cities and I am hopeful that it can be accomplished.”

Yeah, right.

It was then boom time in old Norfolk. A decade past the Jamestown Exposition, the nation had just declared war on Germany. One of the headlines that day said American troops were already in Paris. “Vive les Americains,” the crowds cheered.

Those soldiers had probably come from Norfolk, already a major embarkation point. Thousands of troops were pouring into and out of the city. And construction was about to get underway at the exposition site at Sewell’s Point.

Another headline: JAMESTOWN WORK STARTS TOMORROW

“Work on a larger scale than has ever been undertaken in this section will start with a rush in the new Jamestown tomorrow morning,” the paper said. “Contracts for operations that will convert the old exposition site and Pine Beach into the greatest naval base on the continent have been signed.”

There were other distractions.

The Anti Saloon League was holding a convention in Virginia Beach to propose an amendment to the Virginia Constitution prohibiting the sale of alcohol products. This was just before national prohibition and the atmosphere must have been, shall we say, intoxicating. A chap named Garland Potter, a candidate for governor, was there seeking the league’s support. It didn’t help. Westmoreland Davis was elected that year.

At any rate, further mention of Greater Norfolk seems to completely disappear, at least it could not be found for weeks afterward. Maybe it was the name that turned Portsmouth off and caused it to drop like a hot (political) potato.

The issue has surfaced at least a few other times. In May 1983, ideas of a Hampton Roads megacity that might rival New York surfaced again, with the Pilot jumping on the bandwagon. “Imagine one city with more than a million residents, with a unified water system, one economic development program and one delegation voting as a bloc in the . . . legislature, and it becomes obvious why serious men and women entertained thoughts of a regional merger,” the editors said.

The editors did not identify the serious men and women.

And again, the silence was deafening. Things weren’t exactly booming then the way they were in 1917. In fact, wasn’t there a recession just a few years before? But it wasn’t deep enough or long enough, I guess.

Now, with belts tightening painfully, maybe the mother’s milk of politics – money – will at last bring some togetherness. Just don’t call it Greater Anything.